In my senior year of high school, I took out some Billie Holiday CDs from the library and spent drives listening to Lady Day, finding myself in her lovestruck laments. Pulling into a parking lot or my driveway, I’d sit in my car waiting for “I’ll Be Seeing You” or “Good Morning Heartache” to finish playing, tingling with identification.
Tracy Fessenden’s new book, Religion Around Billie Holiday, confirms that I wasn’t alone in my adolescent affiliation with the jazz singer. Holiday’s gentle woundedness has always attracted listeners; her effortless register leaps, parlando pitterpatter, and carefully employed vibrato are all couched in a sort of smiling-through-tears. The slippery, ironic crooning of “My Man”: Two or three girls has he, that he likes as well as me, but I love him.... All my life is just despair, but I don’t care. The sinister, enunciated consonants of “Strange Fruit”: Pastoral scene of the gallant South, the bulging eyes and twisted mouth. It’s all of a piece with Holiday’s tragic biography. Born in 1915 as Eleanora Fagan, Holiday grew up poor in Baltimore, singing in brothels. Through a career that included twelve albums, classic covers of standards like “Summertime,” and chart-toppers (“God Bless the Child” alone sold over a million copies), she battled a heroin addiction, had her cabaret card revoked, endured a string of abusive relationships, and died at forty-four. In the 1947 film New Orleans, Holiday performed as a singing maid; Louis Armstrong got to play himself. Her slapdash 1956 autobiography Lady Sings the Blues, cowritten by William Dufty and the basis for the 1972 Diana Ross film, plays up her “singular, difficult life”: taking a mustard bath to induce an abortion, being forced to sleep with a corpse as a Catholic-school punishment. Out of the darkness streams light: her prodigiously beautiful voice, untutored, unprecedented, unearned, God’s gift.
So the story goes. But Fessenden, a professor of historical, philosophical, and religious studies at Arizona State University, wants to complicate the now-familiar narrative, and she does so by means of that punishing Catholic reform school. Holiday was sent to the House of the Good Shepherd for Colored Girls twice as a young girl: the first time for truancy, the second time after someone attempted to rape her. The school was penitential, demanding the confessing and re-confessing of sexual escapades and other sins. But there was also an emphasis on choral singing, with constant vocal exercise through the chants of the Liber Usualis and teaching from a book called The Priest’s Voice. This education, Fessenden asserts, belies the claim that Holiday’s voice was entirely natural; she also worked for it.
On her deathbed in a Harlem hospital, Holiday said to her co-author Dufty, “I’ve always been a religious bitch.” Fessenden takes this quip and runs with it, teasing out every Catholic fact of the singer’s biography before and after her time at Good Shepherd. She interprets Holiday’s public persona in church language: “alternating performances of white-gowned, beatific rectitude and reform-school brio” plus a “bad-girl cred and an apprenticeship in radiance.” Holiday had a love for St. Thérèse of Lisieux and an attachment to the rosary; she went to a priest for counsel; she was confirmed. In her music, she confessed and self-punished, clinging to, as Fessenden puts it, “a paradox of late medieval women’s piety, the notion that divine mercy might be found in plumbing every possibility of the flesh.” She dreamed of opening a Dorothy Day–esque farm for the down-and-out. (She loved to cook fried chicken for fellow musicians, give them whiskey and a place to sleep.)